E-cigarette vapour is not inert and exposure can lead to cell damage

Question: What is the cytotoxicity and genotoxicity of short- and long-term e-cigarette vapour exposure on a panel of normal epithelial and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cell lines?


Materials and methods

In vitro experiments were performed on normal epithelial cells as well as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cell lines. The widely available cell line HaCat, a spontaneously transformed immortal keratinocyte and the HNSCC cell lines HN30 and UMSCC10B were used. Cells were exposed to nicotine-containing and nicotine-free vapour extract from two popular e-cigarette brands for periods ranging from 48 hours to eight weeks. Cytotoxicity was assessed using Annexin V flow cytometric analysis, trypan blue exclusion and clonogenic assays. Genotoxicity in the form of DNA strand breaks was quantified using the neutral comet assay and γ-H2AX immunostaining.


E-cigarette-exposed cells showed significantly reduced cell viability and clonogenic survival, along with increased rates of apoptosis and necrosis, regardless of e-cigarette vapour nicotine content. They also exhibited significantly increased comet tail length and accumulation of γ-H2AX foci, demonstrating increased DNA strand breaks.


In conclusion, our study strongly suggests that electronic cigarettes are not as safe as their marketing makes them appear to the public. Our in vitro experiments employing two brands of e-cigs show that at biologically relevant doses, vapourised e-cig liquids induce increased DNA strand breaks and cell death, and decreased clono- genic survival in both normal epithelial and HNSCC cell lines independently of nicotine content. Further research is needed to definitively determine the long-term effects of e-cig usage, as well as whether the DNA damage shown in our study as a result of e-cig exposure will lead to mutations that ultimately result in cancer.

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Additional information

Address for correspondence: WM Ongkeko, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California, United States

Yu V, Rahimy M, Korrapati A, et al. Electronic cigarettes induce DNA strand breaks and cell death independently of nicotine in cell lines. Oral Oncol 2016; 52: 58–65. doi: 10.1016/j.oraloncology.2015.10.018. Epub 2015 Nov 4. PubMed PMID: 26547127.

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Holliday, R., Kist, R. & Bauld, L. E-cigarette vapour is not inert and exposure can lead to cell damage. Evid Based Dent 17, 2–3 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ebd.6401143

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